Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Introducing The Rooster and The Bear

Yes, I know. Two posts in a day! No, I am not turning into Falstaff. That would be a little too depressing. I am off to India tomorrow morn[1] and there are so many posts to put up - one on Stockholm, a few on Berlin, a couple of conversations now that I don't have a job, etc., but I am not sure when amma will allow me near a computer, so I figured might as well put this up now.

By rights, this week should have a Bergman theme but since enough people will do that and I have nothing insightful to say anyway, I will do the next best thing and do a series on The Rooster and The Bear, both from Bergman's beloved Svenska. The Bear we will come to know soon enough. The Rooster, otherwise known as Emil from the Great City of Lund, turned up in London the past weekend and proved to be an endless source of entertainment, so I think its only fair that I spread the joy. Just to give you an idea of how much of a success The Rooster is, let me tell you how popular he was when he happened to be in India for a wedding a few years ago. Amazed (and more than a little puzzled, I guess) after seeing a few apartments and houses in some of our cities, The Rooster whenever he was introduced to anyone immediately put on his best Swedish smile and said: "Hi, I am Emil. From the Great City of Lund. Where do you fuck?" Needless to say, he was a great hit.

In case you think he is some sort of an uncouth fellow from the Northern parts of the world, The Rooster wants you to think about the question he raised. Please note that he did not ask people "How do you fuck?" - now that's just silly and plain rude. Instead, he asked "where", which is really a very thoughful question - these are all small, open style crowded apartments that he saw, how the hell does a country get to one billion people here, he really was puzzled, you see. And if you still not satisfied, the Rooster, among other things, hobnobs with the co-founder of the Feminist Initiative, alright? You better love this guy. (Emil, I know you are reading this. Happy now?)

So anyway, the Rooster comes back home after a hard day's work putting on his best Sergey Brin act (he had on the perfect pair of torn jeans) and impressing a bunch of City bankers.

"Did you hear the news? Its a sad day for Sweden, eh?"

"Yes, I did. He is so timeless. Can you believe that he's dead?"

"When did you hear the news?"

"I was in the meeting and I received a text message. I couldn't believe it. I said "Holy Shit. Bergman's dead" and these damn Brits looked up and said "Bergman who?". It was so painful"


"I will read you the newspapers. Everyone's writing about it. In Sweden, Bergman's next only to Bamse"

"Bamse? As in Bamse, the Bear?"

"No, you don't talk that way about Bamse. Bamse is not just a bear. Damn. How do I explain Bamse to you? Bamse is just Bamse. Bamse is Svenska"


"Let me put it this way. You know how in America there are Republicans and Democrats and all those other people?"

"Yeah those bad people. Yes"

"If you take Bamse and introduce him to Americans, do you know what will happen?"


"There will be no Republicans. There will be no Democrats. No bad people"


"There will only be Social Democrats. And everyone would ask What would Bamse do before going to stupid wars"

"Ah, I see. Bamse is a propaganda machine"

"No, No. Bamse is no such thing. Bamse is the strongest bear ever. He gets strong when he drinks thunder honey"

"He drinks what?"

"Thunderhoney. Now if you and I were to drink it, we will get stomach ache for three days. But Bamse gets strength"


"Bamse is not the just strongest bear, he is also the kindest bear in the whole universe"

"Of course"

"You can go read about him in Wikipedia if you want. Bamse has values. No racism, no bullying, no violence. He is very clear about his values"

"No capitalism too, I suppose?"

"Not really. But the villain in the Bamse stories is an evil capitalist"


"Bamse is the reason we do so well. It is the reason for our high per capita income"

"Well, I thought its because the capita, which is the denominator in that calculation, is you know, close to zero"

"Zero? Nine million people. We are nine million people"

"If you say so. Bamse is also the reason then I suppose there are no Starbucks in Sweden"

The Rooster suddenly looks unhappy.

"I guess so. Bamse wouldn't approve of it"

Back story: The Rooster is actually the perfect example of how rampant American consumerism and capitalism destroys young, innocent boys from Bamseland. The Rooster, in his seventeenth year, spent a year in Seattle as an exchange student. Up until this point in his innocent life, he's had zero cups of coffee and two cans of Coke. Yes, in seventeen years of existence. In Seattle, he had one Mocha Frappuccino and spent two weeks roaming the streets of the city completely stoned. He became a convert and since then, he roams the world in search of mocha frappuccino and spends every night dreaming of the day Starbucks will open its doors in Sweden.

"So you have to choose between Bamse and Starbucks"

"Like that's a real choice"

"Yes, but you still fly to London for the mocha frappuccino"

"Once in a while, its okay. Bamse wouldn't mind"

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I am sure. Hey, I need to figure out what time I need to be at the airport tomorrow"

"International flight. They will say three hours"

"That's what BA says. I am flying SAS. They were brought up on Bamse. They won't lie"


"What are you guys doing? Tax returns?"

"Yeah, these Brits are crazy. There's about 35 sheets to fill"

"We don't do anything of this sort. We just have two lines A and B. You put what you have in your bank and all other savings and send it off. Thats all"

"And you never hear about it again"

"Yeah, they calculate everything and the money goes to Bamse"

"What does he do with the money?"

"He uses it to buy thunderhoney"

"And then he becomes strong"

"Yes, but he is also the kindest, remember? So he takes care of everything"

"It all makes sense now"

"Of course it does. Good night now"

Coming up: The friendly neighborhood Swedish terrorist, and The Scandinavian Pick-Up process

[1] Little over a week at home in God's own country, then to the city by the sea for a couple of days, and a longish weekend in the pretentious city by the river to see the in-laws. The first couple of places I can entertain myself but any suggestions on what to do in the East will be muchly appreciated.

I love Bill (sometimes)

You know how I keep telling you that once in a while, Bill redeems himself and I feel so proud of him? This morning happened to be one such day. We were at some UK version of Schaumburg (its called N Greenwich) trying to buy a couple of random last minute things that I need to take back to India. We find ourselves in this electronics store called Comet - its looks like Best Buy perhaps a little smaller. So I get my stuff and look around for Bill.

"What are you looking at?"

"Hey, check this out na. This steamer thing - we can make idlis with this"

"Yeah its nice. But you need those depression type thingys to make idlis"

"Hmm...yeah but how difficult is to make that? I am sure some dude in India will have a plastic version to go with this. We can buy this steamer and make idlis"

"You want us to buy this now?"

"No, no I was saying its a nice product. If we ever have anything resembling a house, then we can buy this"

"I guess"

"And this. Look at this crockpot. So cool, na? We can leave that pudina pulao thing on this forever and it will get cooked slowly"


"Is this the food processor that we have? This one looks more powerful"

We have reached the end of the aisle. On one of the aisles on the far side, a bunch of grown men sit around fiddling with game stations. And here, Bill is admiring a Black & Decker food processor.

"I love you"

"What? What's wrong? Is this because you are going to India? Or do you want me to buy something for you now? Holy shit. What am I to do now?"

Monday, July 30, 2007


So okay, I am not this guy or this woman or anything, but I do like my movies. First day of not working and the sun is up in London town and what do I do? Go down to the park and do nothing for a while, then go to the library and max out my movie allowance and take out three movies. I am in the library on a weekday afternoon and there's no shortage of movies that I haven't seen and have been wanting to see. But maybe because there's been a Swede in the flat the last couple of days[1] or just some weird coincidence, I pick three that I had already seen since I felt that's what I should be maxing out on today. Then I come home and find this. And in my half-open backpack, I can see Wild Strawberries, Persona and Saraband. Fuck.

[1] Emil, he of the Great City of Lund is visiting and that's what I was going to post about when I saw this. More about that later

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A little bit of pink

Yesterday was my last day at work[1]. They got me some thoughtful farewells gifts - very much so as I have spent hardly six months in this office on this side of the pond. These include a Bitesnich travel photography book, a Lonely Planet travel journal and a couple of candles. As you can see, this also includes a bright pink, leather, DG luggage tag. Yes, I was supposed to be grateful and all but I had to ask. So I walked over to the office manager who obviously picked up these things from Selfridges.

"A, can I ask you something? I really love these books but I have to ask you this"


"Do you associate me with this color?"

"No, but there's a little bit of pink in everybody"

Ah! I see. Now when you see a red suitcase in the carousel with a bright pink tag with my name on it, you know who to blame. Must say that if there's a little bit of pink in me, I'd rather it manifest itself on a suitcase than on anything else. This way, I will be done with my little bit of pink.

[1] Yes, I quit my job. Needless to say, Bill hasn't been very happy about this but more about that later

Friday, July 27, 2007

Obligatory HP post

The digested read here.

No, I am not one of those who love or love to hate the series. I really liked the first couple of books but then it just turned out to be longer versions of the same. I sort of see Rowling as this ad agency type design person - she has these cool creative designs in her head but not much of an idea of how to put them together. So we get no plot, no prose, and the answer to everything is another magical object. For the most part though, this has been enough to make me read the books, so I am not complaining.

Just finished reading the latest one. Have nothing to say about the storyline that I am sure has not been said except to say that one wishes that more screen time was given to the only non one-dimensional character in the series instead of devoting three chapters to how Harry and Hermione end up doing absolutely nothing. Or worse, what Dumbledore did when he was sixteen.

A couple of random points that stand out:

- The epilogue. In the annals of writing, this epilogue stands out as the worst epilogue ever written. I have no doubt that one day it will be required reading for students on how not to write an epilogue. For those of you who think that Hindi movies have the worst epilogues, let me tell you that you have not seen anything yet. Those of you who are not going to read the book, Falsie, yes you, please go to nearest bookstore and read the epilogue. It is that bad. What millions of readers were eager to find out - not what Harry ends up as and whether he ever becomes and Auror, not what Hermione does with her brains - is how many kids they have, what are their names and even better who are these kids snogging. Yes, that's whats really important. Or is that what the Gryffindors are best at? Anyway its not like they care about intellect or ambition. (Aside: Space Bar on the Hogwarts caste system) And Hermione Weasley? Have you heard anything that's grosser than that?

- Allusions to Muggle commissions and Nurmengard are all fine, but what does it really come down to? Lets see who all die - the owl, the house elf (freed, ofcourse), the werewolf, his weirdo wife, the double agent wizard that no one cares about, and yeah okay, but how else will you get Molly to do her Mother India act? There's a reason there's two of them, no? Anyway, the point is what we are being told again and again is that all these other creatures - elves, goblins, werewolves, giants, Muggles etc. - have all to be treated well. They might not be anywhere as good as we are, ofcourse they are not, and this is precisely why its even more important to be nice to them. Sounds familiar? Typical of a particular island in the Atlantic? :)

Bill finished the book last night and we were talking about it this morning. For some reason, we went back to Enid Blyton. Our excuse for Blyton - for her handling of country, class, race and gender - was that its unfair to judge her based on the standards of our time. She was a product of her times. But what about Rowling? Same reason? The language code is different but what else has changed? A mirror to our faces, said Bill. If the small island (or the world in general) doesn't like what it sees, it can hardly blame the writer. But more importantly, no one is complaining, they all seem okay with it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Part 2 (by popular demand)

Cat: You aren't going to like this. I decided to go with reality. Too much pain to make up stuff.

Dades Gorge, Morocco. The sun is slowly going down. MR and I were staying in a hotel inside the gorge that night. A narrow river by the side of the hotel and some super cool mountains on the other side of the river.

"Dude the mountains on the other side are cool. They have these canyon like things"


"We have to get to the other side of the river"

"I know. I will get some really cool pictures"

"Lets walk by the river, we should be able to cross somewhere"

"Okay. But I don't think there's a way to get down to the bank"

"There has to be. Here. There's a ladder here. Lets go down this incline"

"Yeah, this is where they throw the kitchen trash from the hotel. Where are you going?"

"It will get us to the bank"

Five minutes later we are next to the river. It doesn't look too deep. Just a few metres to the other side. Yeah okay, it didn't even look like a river. More like a mountain stream.

"You think we can walk across?"

"Ofcourse not. It might be deep in the middle"

"Lets walk by the bank to see if there's a bridge somewhere"

"Hey, isn't that the Japanese girl who was in the bus with us?"

"Yeah man. How did she get to the other side?"

"I don't know. Did you talk to her? Apparently she travels all over the world by herself. Cool na?"

"Not that cool also. She used to travel with a friend but friend got married, so she travels alone"

"Full story you got"

"Of course. If she's on the other side, there has to be a bridge. Lets go"

A few minutes later we see our bridge. A tree stump from the other side that extends to just about a metre from where we are. The last metre is a little dicey - another very narrow log from our bank extends nearly to the big log; I say nearly because right before it meets the bridge log, it branches into two and these two narrowest logs go on to join the "proper" bridge. (MR, where is the "£$%^&* picture when I need one? You are the photographer, remember?)

"You think we can go?"

"Yeah, you go first"

"You think it will hold my weight?"

"Of course. They have this log so that people can cross over"

"Hmm...I want to. But with wallet, passport, camera and all it might not be a good idea, no? What if they get wet?"

"Of course that's what you are worried about"

"Look, that Japanese girl is looking at us. We have to cross now"

"She is asking us to cross"

"Maybe we should ask her to come to the big log and give us a hand"

"What? No way man. That's so silly. She will think we are some idiots"

"Yeah but if we stand here for an hour pondering about this, she will think we are into metaphysics"

"Why don't you go first?"

"I have the big camera"

"Of course"

"How will we ever tell people we didn't cross a silly stream? Such beautiful mountains too!"

"We won't tell people"

"When is this appearing on your blog again?"

"That's also there. If only we can get someone to give us a hand"

"I am sure we can find some kid who will do that for a buck or something"

"I wish Bill was here"

"Yes, then he has no choice but to cross and help us over, and we don't even have to pay him a buck. That's what husbands are for"

"Obviously. Even better for you na? He will give you a hand and you aren't even married to him"

"Yes, this is why you should travel with your friends' husbands"

"Yeah but the point is he is not here and its pretty clear that neither of us is going to attempt this"

"Yes, lets go. Just don't go about telling people"

"I will try"


Gallno, Stockholm archipelago. A month later. Read this first.

"You think there are life jackets inside that hood?"

"Hmm...there is a broken plastic can inside. I wonder what they use that for"

"To get the water out of the boat"


"So you want to go?"

"Well, what is there in that island?"

"More pine forests"

"So there's nothing new?"

"Not that I know of. But it will be nice to row there"

"I know"

Five minutes later.


"So what?"

"Why are we standing here?"

"I am wearing sneakers"

"That's a sad reason. You can take my sandals. They will fit you"

"I guess. So you are not coming?"

"I didn't cross a bloody 3 metre stream. What makes you think I am going to do this?"

"We have a boat"

"What if one of those speedboats go by and we topple over? I am not going in without a life jacket. And anyway, someone needs to be here to call 911. Or whoever"

"Its not a big deal"

"I know. Get in, and I will push the boat out"

"What? You want to me go by myself now?"

"I thought it wasn't a big deal"

"Yes, you want me to die only!"

"But why are you afraid of dying? Didn't that walk on water guy you were following teach you not to be? Heaven awaits you, my son"

"Oh shut up. I don't understand why you can't row a few metres"

"Can you understand why you can't?"

"Who said I can't?"

Motu sits down on a tree stump. Pulls out camera and shoots randomly. Chotu pretends to tinker with the boat. A few speedboats and canoes pass by.

"When is the ferry?"

"6.30. But we can flag others"

"Yes, and I can watch you flip out when a couple of them do not stop"

"I thought you said they always stop"

"See what I mean"

Chotu walks up a mound and does some surverying. Yes, the real thing. Stand in one place. Measure. Go to another place. Figure out angle. Calculate distance.

Finally comes back down and taps the sides of the boat. Another ten minutes have gone by.

"So lets go. We have to catch the ferry"

"What's wrong with the boat?"

"I think there's a leak. Which is why they have this plastic can"

"Did you find the leak?"

"Do you want to miss the ferry?"

When we got back to the yacht bay, the suicidal woman was nowhere to be seen. All the the boats have also seem to have left for some reason. Someone left this behind though[1].

The walk back has been generally quiet. We entered the thick forest. Somewhere in the middle, pitch dark, no sun, Chotu finally decides to speak.



"This is not going on the blog, is it?"

"Of course not. How mean do you think I am?"

[1] No MR. This is not that deserted beach.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Bill learnt German for a semester in school[1][2]. So, once in a while, when he is done staring at the ceiling he talks about German. He claims he finds their composite words fascinating. Mostly because its so logical, and it's how one would expect words to be put together. One of the words he particularly likes is Vergangenheitsbewältigung[3]. The word's meaning from what I gather is "the process of coming in terms with the past". (Vergangenheit = past; Bewältigung = management) Yes, they have a word for it and they do not stop at that. Memorials and museums across the country, the history curriculum in their schools, and more recently, the opening of the Stasi files are examples of the institutionalization of this process. The Tin Drum (though controversial nowadays!) is an example of its importance in German literature. One could argue that Germany has a past that makes this word necessary but really, who doesn't? Why is the extermination of Native Americans any less worthy of America's attention? Or why is it that in neighbouring Austria, which by all accounts was even more anti-Semitic that Germany, they seem only interested in reinventing themselves as a Sound of Music paradise and any talk of a memorial creates a controversy?

The point I am trying to make (though I would be the first to admit I am biased here) is that I find Germany to be more open than any other country in exploring the skeletons in his closet. Even a casual visitor to the country, unless you are there just for Oktoberfest, cannot help noticing this. And this is why in Berlin, the visitor needs to make some pretty tough choices not just around museums but also about the memorials that he wants to see[4]. So here, in no particular order, are some notes on a few museums and memorials that we visited:

1. The Jewish Museum, designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind and completed in 2001, is as much an architectural landmark in Berlin as it is a museum that showcases two thousand years of German Jewish history. (The original Jewish museum was closed down by the Nazis in 1938) This zig-zag, zinc-plated building follows no functional pattern, and looks like an architecture installation. The building cannot be accessed directly from the street and you have to go into the Baroque building next door and take a stairway down to a tunnel that will let you into the main museum building.

Once inside, there is a straight line hallway interesected by two other lines. These form the three axes - the Axis of Exile and the Axis of Holocaust interesecting the Axis of Continuity. Along the Axis of Exile, there are names of cities that Jews fled to during the 30s and the 40s along with displays of personal effects, letters and stories of individual families. The Axis of Exile leads into the Garden of Exile - a courtyard consisting of tilted columns that gives you a feeling of disorientation. This supposedly signifies the experience of the exiled people in their adopted countries. The Axis of Holocaust has names of all camps and display windows with individual stories and personal effects of people who perished in the camps; this axis leads to a dark, concrete tower called The Holocaust Tower. The Axis of Continuity leads to a staircase that keeps going up even after you turn off at the top floor to enter the rooms that showcases the history of Jews in Germany through the ages.

2. First they built it as a peace memorial with the Quadriga driving the peace chariot. Then that little French horse thief stole it and took it to Paris. They got it back and gave an Iron Cross to the Quadriga to make it a Victory memorial. The Russians put it on their side of the Wall in 1961, JFK used it as a background for his famous speech, and when the Wall went down, the Chancellor walked through it to shake hands with the Prime Minister. The Propylea inspired Brandenburg Gate is probably the most recognizable structure in Berlin, and it stands at the top of the tree-lined Unter der Linden and just a block from the Reichstag. This neo-classical structure, built by the Athens on the River Spree school, could easily have been one of those imposing monstrosities that adorn many an American city but perhaps because of the open square in front and the modern buildings around it, it looks quite pretty and very much in place.

3. Between Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, next to Hannah Arendt Strasse, in Berlin's prime real estate area, lies the 5 acre Holocaust Memorial. Official name is "Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe" which has been a cause of controversy for obvious reasons. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman, the memorial consists of about 2700 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern. It was supposedly inspired by the Jewish cemetery in Prague where the ordered system broke down when the numbers became unmanageable. The concrete slabs are of varying heights and the path through the grid is also not flat all the way through, so as you walk through the memorial, there will be times where the slabs around you are more than twice your height.

"What's all this?"

"This is so cool. I feel disoriented"

"Yeah, but you know the one in DC is cool too. This is sorta cool but how many did you really kill?"

Bloody American tourists. To be fair though, most of the American tourists we had seen up till then in Berlin were actually pretty nice with an uniquely American sense of humour and they seemed very much clued in on everything.

"Hey Bill. Did you hear about that new African-American history museum they are building in Berlin? Do you know if that's open yet?"

Three pairs of eyes on me. Bill had to drag me away. And just as we were walking away, between the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial, probably the most prized location in the city, well, what did you expect?

4. Are memorials supposed to serve any purpose? Are they supposed to make one feel like one has learnt something from history? The super-creative and very dignified Jewish Museum was informative and interesting. The Brandenburg Gate a study in imperialism and probably symbolism. The Holocaust Memorial, I got the idea and all but I felt it was a little too opulent and showy to have any impact. Where am I going with this? To Bebelplatz in front of the Humboldt university where the Nazis, in their early years, burnt books. Hemingway, Mann, Marx, Remarque everyone you can think of. As you walk acorss this large square today, you come across a glass plate in the middle. You peer down the glass plate and you see a room underground with white bookshelves on all four sides. All of these shelves are empty. A little distance away, a plaque on the ground with a Heinrich Heine quote from 1820:

That was merely a prelude. Wherever they burn books, eventually they will burn people too.

If there's another memorial anywhere in the world that is so simple and yet so impactful, I have not seen it yet.

(To be continued)

[1] Yes, now we know why it takes so long to do a PhD!

[2] The reasons for choosing German aren't exactly clear. I mean, everyone you know learns Spanish or Mandarin. Why German? BM thinks this had something to do with the fact that whenever Bill happened to be in Germany, men hit on him. I have no idea how this relates to anything, but this is one of BM's all-time favorite theories so I just thought I would mention it.

[3] No, I wasn't going to take his word for it until I saw that Alok, he of Zembla also thinks this is a real word (thought I cannot find the link right now).

[4] The guidebooks all claimed that unlike other European cities, Berlin isn't built around a central downtown type area, so you have to choose and be efficient about getting from one to another. Not entirely true. First of all, Berlin hasn't been built and done with but we already knew that and we will come back to that later. Second of all, this is Germany we are talking about and by definition, there is no dearth of efficiency in transportation or anything else for that matter. Third, while there is no central area, one can easily walk to most of Berlin's attractions - if you cannot walk from the Jewish museum to Unter der Linden, seriously, you should never leave America in the first place. Having said that, there are definitely choices that you need to make in Berlin in terms of what you want to see unless your time is unlimited. With just about three days, our choices were reasonably easy to make - a couple of historicals streets, a few memorials, and obviously, architecture.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Scenes from a Marriage: What Other People Think

Lazy Sunday afternoon. As a follow-up to feeling appropriately jealous of some peoples' junket on the Silk Road, Bill reads Trespassers on the Roof of the World while I am on a transatlantic three way call.

Anoop: Ofcourse Veena will give you a successful strategy for getting married. Veena, go on.

BM: No, trust me on this. The worst kind of people to ask for strategy are the ones who are successfully married

Me: Anoop, may I call your attention to the word "successfully"?

BM: Well, you have the most successful marriage I know. If I ever get married, what you have is what I would aspire to

Anoop: How ironic. But true, yes.

BM: I know. It is so ironic, isn't it?

So to which one should I take umbrage here? That I have become the definition of "uncool" by virtue of having a "successful" marriage? Or that two of my closest friends had such low expectations of my marriage? And by extension, of me in general?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Postcard from Fes

Another interruption.
In case you just skimmed this over your morning coffee, here is it again:

Bab Bou Jeloud. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon when we found ourselves in front of the western gate of the old medina of the imperial city of Fes. We had gotten off the train just a couple of hours ago, and after hurriedly checking into the Riad where we were staying the night, we made our way here to get lunch. Menus were being thrust towards us from all directions.

“Couscous! You want couscous?”

“This place is in your book. Look, look”

“We have very good tagines”

“You want terrace to enjoy panorama? Come here”

We gave up and went into Le Kasbah, the nearest restaurant. This one had seating in the terrace, facing Bab Bou Jeloud. Even at this absurd time, there were quite a few tourists inside. A waiter, our waiter we found out later, was casually flirting with the lone Japanese woman in the corner. He seemed to know enough Japanese to maintain a steady conversation. He ambled over after a while; we ordered lemon and chicken tagine and settled down to wait. Outside the Bab, there was a car park where taxis were dropping off and picking up tourists. On this side of the gate, the alleys are too narrow for any kind of motorized transport and the mules seemed to rule. My friend took out her cameras and started to shoot while I decided to educate myself on some local history.

Fes is the oldest and the grandest of the imperial cities of Morocco, and its old medina, the Fes el-Bali is the oldest living Islamic medieval city in the world. The medina was established in the eighth century by Idriss II, the heir to Idriss I who established the first imperial dynasty in Morocco. The city originally consisted of Berbers and Arabs from Tunisia and soon grew to be the intellectual capital of the country; the first university in the western world, the Kairaouine Mosque and University lies within the medina walls. With European imperialism and the rise of the cities of Marrakech and Rabat, Fes started losing its place as the political centre of Morocco. But the city is still considered the moral, artistic and intellectual capital of the country, and the beginnings of Moroccan nationalism and the freedom movements can be traced to the streets of Fes el-Bali.

The lemon and chicken tagine turned out to be decent, but the bowl of complimentary B’sara, a Fassi butterbean and garlic soup was excellent. We paid downstairs and set out to get lost in the labyrinth that is the old medina. As soon as we turned right into the alley of Talaa Kebira, shouts of “Indian”, “Namaste” and “Shah Rukh Khan” went out from the shopkeepers in the souks on either side. We smiled and walked down the street towards the minaret of Medersa Bou Inania. Talaa Kebira, unlike the alleys of the medina of Marrakech seemed to be a real market, and not just one geared towards tourists. We were at the end of a vegetable and meat souk from where locals were buying fresh produce. Soon the produce market gave way to phone centres, and the ubiquitous pottery and leather stores.

The Medersa Bou Inania, built by Bou Inan of the Merenid dynasty in the fourteenth century is considered to be one of the finest theological colleges in the country. This medersa is open to everyone except at prayer times, and so we were able to go inside. In addition to the minaret, the medersa contains a large mosque with elaborate tile work, plasterwork, and wood carvings.

Out of the medersa, and we continued downhill on the now-familiar Talaa Kebira. Now and then, just around a corner or by a nondescript phone booth we would catch sight of beautiful fountains with amazing blue-and-green tile work. We were well inside the medina by now, and had to stop every couple of minutes to let the mules with their heavy baggage go by. Soon we caught sight of the lovely, green-tiled minaret of the Ash-Sherabliyin mosque and ahead, the slipper-makers shops after whom the mosque was named. The shoe sellers came next followed by leather workers where we stopped to pick up a couple of leather purses.

We then followed directions to the henna souk, which for some inexplicable reason was filled with shops selling organic blue Fes pottery. The shopkeepers were friendly but refused to haggle. Their reason: “You are from Shah Rukh Khan’s city. You must be rich, you can pay this much!”

Place an-Nejjarine, which houses the carpenters’ souk and the Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts, was somewhere near here, and we went around a few alleys a couple of times before getting there. The carpenters’ were making silver colored thrones to be used in wedding ceremonies and one of them stopped to talk to us about his work. We didn’t get anywhere as we did not know any Arabic but we did gather that he watches Hindi movies all the time. Like that’s any surprise to us anymore! There definitely are more people in Morocco watching Bollywood movies than there are in India!

We headed east towards the Kairaouine Mosque & University – by now, we had veered away from the Talaa Kebira quite a bit, and had only a vague idea of the direction we were heading. Needless to say, half an hour later we were still looking for the university. We decided to head back to the Riad but that was easier said than done. The Riad was somewhere in the northern medina near Bab Guissa, so we figured we would head in the general direction until we hit the medina wall. Helpful shopkeepers kept us going but they warned us against people in the streets who might offer to give us directions. We finally reached our Riad sometime after seven, just as the cry of the muezzin reverberated through the city, and rushed to the terrace. The old city of Fes spread out beneath us, the ruined tombs and the cemetery on the hills behind us, the prayer call going out from every mosque in the city – “one of the prettiest sounds at sunset” (as Barack Obama put it recently) here in this soulful, walled city is definitely one of the prettiest things that this world has to offer.

(Pictures of Bab Jeloud, fountain and Fes pottery by MR)

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Beyond the Dickensian scenery and names, the Blyton-esque ideal of family and adventure and Tolkien-style monsters, is essentially a tale of vulnerable love.

The tabloid of Britian reviews the latest HP.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Don't be a Muggle, Be a Zuckerman!

Harry is decapitated by Ron who is really Voldermort's robot son. Yes, its T-25 hours and John Oliver is in NY watching people drown in the Hudson river waiting in line for the Harry Potter. The best part? John, like everyone else in the line, is in costume - no, no he is not dressed up as a character from Harry Potter, that would be so trite. So who is he dressed up as?

Go find out!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

On the banality of evil - Part 2

Gandhi's suggestions for dealing with the menace of Nazism are infamous - collective suicide, give up and be slaughtered type solutions. Yes, it would be funny if it wasn't so tragic etc. but here's the question - it was far from collective suicide, but for the most part, didn't hundreds of thousands of Jews unknowingly follow his suggestion anyway? They filled out numerous forms, turned up at the transportation points on time, walked to the places of execution, dug their own graves, folded their clothes neatly, and lay down side by side to be shot. They walked to their own funeral knowingly. Why? Why board the train? In most cases, until the actual time of the shooting, no gun was pointed at them. Even if it were, why didn't twenty thousand people revolt and charge back at a few hundred guards? These were the kind of questions that were asked again and again during the trial by the prosecution, to every witness. Arendt says nobody came out and answered it though it was obvious. No other group had behaved differently, and most people just didn't want to die a thousand times before they actually died. But the prosecution raised the question anyway perhaps to bring out the contrast between "Israeli heroism and the meekness with which Jews went to their death".

Yes, perhaps if there had been a country for the Jews, a territory to call their own, a government, an army, the numbers might have been different. But, and this is the But that got Arendt into a lot of trouble and its worth quoting, so here - "But the whole truth was that there existed Jewish community organizations and Jewish party and welfare organizations on both the local and international level. Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people".

Note that she is not talking of the Jewish commandos in the extermination centers, Jewish workers in the gas chambers and crematoriums, or the Jewish technicians who built gas chambers in some of the concentration camps. She is also not talking of the Zionists in the mid-1930s who happily worked with the SS, and were free to come in and out of Germany - their motive was to select the best and get them out of Germany - legally or illegally - into Palestine. She is talking of the Jewish Council of Elders and the judenrate which in almost every country consisted of local community leaders. Their cooperation in every country was assured. They would distribute the yellow badges, compile list of persons to be deported, make sure the forms were filled correctly, secure money for the deportation, supply police forces to seize any Jews who didn't turn up and make sure they are put on the right trains, and before they themselves are transported to (usually) Theresienstadt, hand over all assets of the community. In Poland (where the situation was the most desperate), for instance, the nearly 3 million Jews who were killed saw maybe a handful of Germans on the way to their deaths. [A prominent member of the Hungarian judenrate was a witness during the trial and people screamed when he made his appearance - his point was that about fifty percent of the people who went underground were caught and tortured and murdered, and that's why the people were asked not to escape. The obvious question is (and Arendt is quick to ask), as opposed to what? 99% of those who didn't try to escape? ]

So without out the cooperation of the victims, would the numbers have been smaller? Possibly. From what we know today, we can even safely say Yes. But was it clear at that time? Probably not. There were some ghettos in which the judenrate were working with the resistance but these were the exceptions. Raul Hilberg (of the seminal The Destruction of the European Jews which of course I have not read in its entirety) goes beyond the judenrate and the community organizations when talking about the complicity of the victims - he puts it down (partly) to a very Jewish outlook - in trusting laws and contracts, in the essentially "Jewish calculation that the persecutor would not destroy what he could economically exploit" - it is perhaps because of this attitude, this strategy that we do not hear of many resistance stories.

Finally, for some proper history - the history of deportations outside the Reich and the Protectorate. The case of Denmark is well-known but its interesting to see what other countries did. Each country reacted differently to the German order to deport Jews within their territories and more than anything else, it was these reactions - of the government and the people of the country regardless of whether the country was German-occupied, independent or puppet - that decided the fate of the Jews in the specific country. Yes, despite the German might.

Lets start with Scandinavia:

- Finland: Finland joined the War on the side of the Axis powers. However the Finns were never asked to deport anyone, so the few hundred Jews of Finland survived the war.

- Sweden: Sweden was fully independent and was never occupied by Germany though for a while, they had signed a treaty allowing free passage of German troops through the country. Sweden was never asked to deport her Jews, and they all survived the war. Sweden also played an important role in ensuring the safety of the Jews living in Denmark and Norway by offering them asylum in their time of need.

- Norway: Most of the ~2000 Jews in Norway were stateless (Stateless Jews were the first ones to be deported first from the countries; Germany revoked citizenship for any Jew living outside Germany so they were all stateless) and were seized to be deported. Norway, unlike the other Nordic countries, had enthusiastic pro-Nazi supporters with a party and an anti-semitic leader (Remember Quisling?) However, when Eichmann's office demanded these Jews be deported to Auschwitz, some of the party's own men resigned their government posts. Sweden immediately offered asylum to the Jews. Germans didn't agree of course but more than half the Jews were smuggled out to Sweden and they survived the war.

- Denmark: I know. Everyone knows about Denmark but I never tire of speaking about it, so here. The only non-violent resistance to Nazi policy in history and guess what? It worked![1]

When the Danes were told to issue yellow badges to the Jews, they replied that their King would be the first to wear it. Also that any anti-Jewish measures would cause mass resignations. The Danes refused to distinguish between the Danish Jews and the stateless German Jewish refugees. (even though the refugees weren't allowed to work in Denmark) The German military commander ordered a state of emergency but the Germans soon discovered that even their plenipotentiary Dr Best could not be trusted. Eichmann sent some of his best men to Denmark but nothing seemed to work. Finally Dr Best went to Berlin and obtained a promise that all Jews from Denmark would be sent only to Theresienstadt and not to any of the death camps. Immediate seizure was the plan - since no one was available, German police units arrived for a door-to-door search. Just before the search started, Dr Best informed them that they were not permitted to break into apartments as the Danish police would intervene then. Out of the 7,800 Jews at home, about 500 opened their apartment doors and were seized (as news didn't reach them soon enough. The Danish government was tipped off before and they made sure that all Jewish community leaders knew about this who openly communicated this in synagogues during services) The Jews went into hiding which was not a huge issue as they were welcome in almost every Danish home. And no, they didn't live out the war in hiding. Thanks to Sweden. Who immediately offered asylum. Most of the Jews were smuggled across in ferries and the cost of transportation was taken care of by wealthy Danish citizens. Yes, in a time when the Jews had to pay for their own deportation, here the transportation costs for smuggling them to safety were paid by Danish citizens!

These Scandinavians! They always do things differently, eh? No, not really. How do you explain the fact that in two of the most important non-Reich countries in the continent, in Vichy France and in Mussolini's Italy (which included Italian-occupied South of France), a majority of Jews survived the war?

(To be continued. The original intention was to write two sentences on each country but obviously that ain't working out and I still have to get to France, Italy, Holland and the countries of the East. So. And yes, I know there's nothing new. Its just history that I want to put in one place for me to refer back)

[1]Agreed, Denmark wasn't directly under the Germans - Germany had overrun Denmark, and there was a Reich plenipotentiary in Copenhagen[2] but they had their King and government. Plus there weren't that many Jews there in the first place. And a host of other reasons. So yes, just because it worked in Denmark doesn't mean it would have worked in other places but well, it could have been tried, no?

[2] one Dr Werner Best who might have played one of the most dangerous double roles by a German in Holocaust history. Remember we talked about how when Nazi criminals were tried in the country where the crimes were committed, they always got the death penalty? Dr Best was the one of the few (if not the only) exception - his death sentence was reversed on appeal and considering the history, it wasn't very surprising

Monday, July 16, 2007


Space Bar, this one is for you! Forgot to post this somehow - picture taken in Gamla Stan in Stockholm a few weeks go. (SB: I still get the book, don't I?)

And we went and watched the Harry Potter movie last night. I watch all new HPs mostly because I think its funny to watch all these British actors taking their roles so seriously, without a trace of condescension. Latest additions being Imelda Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter. (AO Scott said this somewhere recently but I can't find the link and anyway, he didn't think it was funny, he thought it was a good thing!) This particular movie did have one more thing going for it - two very lovely night shots of the London skyline and the Thames. I mean, it takes some talent to make the skyline of this city look good, no?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

On the banality of evil - Part 1

Long, rambling post, so don't tell me I didn't warn you. And its only Part 1. This started out as a footnote in a post I started writing on some of Berlin's memorials but it got too long for a footnote that I decided to yank it out and post this independently.

While one could go back on forth on whether a Holocaust Industry really exists, no one disagrees that the publishing industry in the last sixty years hasn't done too badly in terms of the number of books published on the subject. I really doubt whether any other incident in the last century spawned so many books. From Elie Wiesel to Norman Finkelstien to David Irving, everyone has something to say. Which means that everyone you meet has their own "the book" of the Holocaust. No, I don't have one. I probably would have had one except that the time in my life when I got majorly interested in the subject coincided with an ugly femur fracture which left me tied to the bed and the wheelchair for two and a half months. So other than playing Scrabble with Anoop, BM and R~ who used to visit me everyday and wheel me out for my evening "walk", I spent the first month reading books on the subject. One of the few books that I felt was interesting and that has remained in my mind, despite its many criticisms and obvious biases, has been Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem which as everyone knows, is famous for the phrase that she abruptly throws in at the end - the banality of evil. It is indeed sad that the book had been reduced to a phrase when there's so much more to it, so many lessons that our current world could use, and so in the context of visiting Berlin and all that, I figured I might write my own little post about it.

For the uninitiated, Hannah Arendt was a German Jewish political writer and theorist who fled Germany in the 1930s first to France, and then to the United States where she worked closely with the Jewish community. She taught at a number of universities and I believe she was the first woman to be appointed to a full professorship at Yale (No, wrong, not Yale, Wiki tells me its Princeton). In 1961, she covered the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker, and later went on to write a book about it. Her reports and the book proved to be highly controversial and the Jewish community distanced itself from her quite rapidly. It is interesting but not at all surprising that the animosity towards Arendt originated and peaked in the United States[1] and not in any other part of the world such as well, Israel.

One of the main criticisms levelled against the book is not so much about what she says but around how she says it. Arendt has an offhand and sarcastic way of writing that I found that to be a positive while reading the book though it is understandable why people might not like her style. She makes a number of interesting points, and raises some very pertinent questions and I do consider the book a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. For the purposes of this post, I will stick to a few interesting and controversial points that I revisited recently.

0. Arendt was biased. She was disillusioned with Zionism long before the trial happened, and she didn't particularly like Ben Gurion. She hates the rhetoric of the prosecutor and makes fun of him throughout the book. She is always very sure of herself and her theories of Eichmann. More seriously, she is quite dismissive of the Jews of the East - everytime she talks about someone from the East, this bias is very evident. She is very happy and impressed with the three German-Jewish judges. She is extremely sarcastic at times and could come across as being uncaring. None of the above takes away anything from the major issues that she raises in the book but it is worth keeping in mind.

1. The Eichmann trial was more than just a trial, in some respects, it was a show trial, a play put on Ben Gurion and his men for the people of the world. It intended to put not just one individual or the Nazi government, but "anti-Semitism throughout the ages" on the dock. As much as everyone liked to argue this point claiming that Arendt wasn't exactly a Zionist sympathizer, Arendt points that it was Ben Gurion himself who announced to the world multiple times that what he wanted (among other things) was the world to be ashamed, he wanted the world to see the Judaism has always faced "a hostile world", that it was necessary that the new generation of "Israeli youth remember what happened to the Jewish people". Other important motives of the trial, according to Ben Gurion, was "to ferret out other Nazis" (remarkably successful if you think about the number of Nazis who were brought to trail in Germany in the 1960s), and (of course) to expose "the connection between Nazis and some Arab rulers".

This last point, Arendt thinks, is pointless considering that the Arab rulers never made their connection with the Nazis a secret. She is also quick to point out that it was surprising that Ben Gurion mentions the Arab states but not West Germany considering that a majority of Nazis who figure in the history of Jewish suffering still live their normal lives in that country. In this context, she also mentions the 700-odd million dollars that Israel has received from West Germany in reparation during the last twenty years, and now that that will come to an end soon, Israel is looking at a long term loan from the Germans. Yeah, and then I wonder why this book was controversial?!

2. Arendt makes an interesting distinction between "crimes against the Jewish people" and "crimes against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people" and says that if the accused is accused of the latter, an Israeli court cannot do it justice; it requires an international tribunal. (or the ICC which was established decades later) A technical point but I think there's more to this that mere technicality, however, in the interest of not making this too long, I will make another post about this some other time.

3. Throughout the book, at every possible opportunity, Arendt brings up the attitude of the German people toward their past. Almost every single instance when the criminal in question was tried in a German court, the sentence has been "fantastically lenient". In comparison, whenever the accused was tried by the country where the crimes took place, the sentence has almost always been death. Yes, Germany did not have the death penalty but that in no way explains a sentence of five years and six months for a man who "liquidated" thousands of lives in the last few days of the war.

This might be surprising considering that the Germany that you and I know of today is arguably the most open and self-critical of nations. However, it is worth remembering that if the country after the War had set on a path to indict anyone related to the atrocities of the Nazi administration, there might not have been an administration. The mass murderers who surely lived peaceful lives in Germany in the 1950s were unlikely to commit any more murders, and the general German population was willing to let it be and get on with their lives[2]. Also, as much as it is difficult to believe, the Holocaust was not a huge issue in the first two decades after the War - it did not enjoy the prominence that it does today in our everyday discourse.

4. Arendt is very clear throughout that Eichmann deserved to be hanged. Eichmann was the person in charge of transporting "shipments" to the extermination centers knowing fully well what was going to be done with the shipments. Any way you look at it, he was a mass murderer and as per the law of the land, he deserved to die. Arendt even goes to the extent of writing her own version of the sentence in the epilogue!

But just because Eichmann deserved to be executed did not mean that he be accused of everything that ever happened during the Holocaust. This is where the distinction whether what's on trial in "Eichmann, the man" or "the history of anti-semitism" comes in. For instance, the prosecution starts its case with the killings in the East as that's where the killing fields were and that's where the situation was the worst and clearly, that's what the prosecution wanted to showcase to the world. But interestingly enough, the judges during the sentencing kept the East for the end. This is because that there was scanty evidence connecting Eichmann to the East, and Eichmann was the one on trial. His activities were mostly in the Western and Central nations, his job was to deport people to the killing fields of the East.

5. Now, what did Arendt think of Eichmann? Normal (as certified by every psychologist who examined him), mediocre, never had an original idea, interested mostly in getting ahead in his career. Boasted about everything, used the most stupid and banal of cliches (even while walking to his death), thoughtless in the sense that he wasn't not capable of thinking from anyone else's standpoint, a clown in some ways. He wasn't anti-Semite and had no real hatred of the Jews. While there is no doubt Eichmann was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people, he did not wield any real power. He was nowhere as powerful as the prosecution claimed he was. For instance, he didn't even decide how many people to be shipped to where. He was just told. His expertise was in organization and administration and that he carried out as efficiently as humanly(?) possible - yes, that meant in Hungary, in the summer of 1944 when the Red Army was nearly at the gates, he shipped about 400,000 Jews to the death camps in the course of two months.

In our post-Milgram, post-Abu Ghraib times, when a book called the Lucifer Effect has just been published, perhaps a few people might find this picture of Eichmann believable. Might even admit that he might have been human. But it is not difficult to see why it is wasn't for the majority in Jerusalem or in Brooklyn in 1961, and why Eichmann has to be a psychotic, inhuman monster with no sign of normality. And that's one reason, though not the most important one (I think), the banality of evil became such a controversy.

There are two more points, the two most interesting and pertinent points that the book raises, that I wanted to talk about but this is getting too long, so Part 2 will follow. Both points are non-Eichmann related and probably makes sense in a separate post anyway. The first is regarding the complicity of the Jewish leaders in the suffering, and the second is the history of deportations from countries outside the Reich and the Protectorate. The first is probably the most controversial assertion made by Arendt and if she had stayed away from it, she wouldn't have been hated as much as she was. As for the second, I believe that it is in this history, in the reactions of the individual countries to the German Foreign Office's order/request for deportation and the events that followed lie the most important lessons that we can learn from the Holocaust. So.

[1] Highly recommend The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick

[2] Before someone jumps on me, I am not justifying it or saying it is right. Just thinking out aloud that this might be what was going on

PS: Too serious kya? I warned you, no? German fascination is like this only. What to do?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


People have this idea of Europe in their heads[1]. This idea of the continent usually encompasses one or more of the following - old cathedrals with stained glass windows, cafe lined cobblestone streets, tulips and roses, museums and ruins, a slower pace of life, less work and more alcohol, refinement in everything. To be fair, a good many European cities possess some or all of these traits, and they do seem to live up to most people's expectations. Ofcourse any serious visitor to the continent will find out in a matter of hours that what keeps this "old world charm" intact, first and foremost, is the desire for the New World's gaping mouths (to be promptly converted to euros at current exchange rate) but that's a different post. This post is about Berlin. So what I was going to say is that if you are one of those people who's out to "experience Europe" as I believe is called, give Berlin a miss. Its not worth your time.

Not because Berlin doesn't have any of the things you will be looking for. There are (a few) cathedrals and cafes and beautiful squares, and world class museums and way too much alcohol but the difference here is that unlike other cities, the sum total of these things do not make Berlin[2]. In fact, they come nowhere close to defining the city. Berlin takes every one of the Western Europe stereotype, and right next to it puts something so different, so incongruous that it will either totally disorient you or as in my case, makes you fall in love with it. Berlin is part Munich yes, but more importantly it is part Warsaw, part Chicago and part Shanghai. Because of its unique history, Berlin can afford to do something which no other city in Western Europe can - it can grow. Physically. And that, more than anything else, is what makes this city my kind of town. And that's why to really like Berlin, its not just necessary that you appreciate history but its also absolutely essential that you appreciate glass, steel and concrete. (And Meis. And Jahn. Its called the reverse drain. Or the reverse takeover. We will get there in a couple of posts. Don't worry.)

I remember a New Years Eve nearly eighteen years ago. Or maybe it was the last Friday of the year. I remember it because it was the year that I developed a serious interest in the world outside the subcontinent[3]. In June of the year that was fading away, the Chinese military killed hundreds of students and activists at a Square[4] in Beijing. In November of the same year, halfway across the world, the most famous Wall of the century came down. Two momentous incidents of the decade, and of my eleven-year old life in the same year. We were at some sort of a party that night. We had just watched the year-end edition of The World This Week or its equivalent. The party went on inside while the Don and I sat down on the balcony and talked about the probable repurcussions of the two incidents in the coming years. The Don was drunk; I wasn't. I called him on Monday evening to tell him about Berlin. I was drunk; he wasn't. I promised him that I would write all about Berlin on paper with ink in my lovely handwriting and get Royal Mail and the Indian Postal Service to deliver it to him. Why am I telling you all this? Just to assure you loyal readers that atleast three posts on Berlin will be coming up soon - a couple on memorials and monuments and another couple on Berlin's beautiful buildings. Happy? No? Okay, how about this?

(Did you see the rainbow? I am cool, no?)

[1] Yes, of course I am generalizing. I can't do that now? Says who?

[2] From a visitor's standpoint. Ofcourse every city has layers and strawberry jam in between but that's usually meant only for residents

[3] Though sometimes, I confuse it with the year that followed as that one was a little closer to home - home being Kerala, we got quite a few new students mid-term, right before the War

[4] A must-read article in current issue of LRB on the incident here

Monday, July 09, 2007

Ich bin ein berliner - The Prologue

If I were told that I could go to only one country in Europe in my lifetime and were asked to pick the country, there is no doubt in my mind which country that would be. No, not England as we knew everything about the country and their people anyway. Not France, as for some reason, I have always thought of France as being overhyped[1]. Not Italy, not Greece, as much as I wanted to see the Pantheon and the Acropolis, they would not have been at the top of my list. Definitely not Eastern Europe which is sort of a recent fad and other than the occasional Counts and Vampires, I never knew much about them growing up. Not even Spain, as in so many ways, its not that dissimilar from what we are used to. Instead, I would have picked Germany. I know. I am so boring, aren't I? But what to do? We are like this only.

Why so much fascination for the country? I don't know. To some extent, yes, the history of the last century. Though if one were to go by that alone, why not London or Moscow? Literature, then? Probably. Though I prefer the Russians. Music? Not really. Philosophy? I am not that depressive. Cars? No, but maybe the autobahns. Thinking back, my first impressions of the country had nothing to do with Hitler or Bach, instead it has to do with machine tools. I remember pulling out colorful catalogs from my Dad's work briefcase as a kid and admiring well, milling and CNC machines. (I said I am boring, alright?) Swiss companies but German technology, my Dad explained. Precision engineering. Nobody does it as well as they do. Which is why we will be buying some of these machines from them. So it must be some weird combination of history, culture, and precision engineering. As I said, I don't really know[2].

As it happened, on my first ever trip to the continent a good five years ago, the first city on the list was Munich. This had more to do with Lufthansa schedules and Anoop's "flight simulations" than anything else but that isn't going to stop me from claiming that this was meant to be. We spent just a couple of days in Munich before crossing over to Austria. Vienna, I fell in love with and wanted to move there asap, and Rome had me gaping in awe, but for years, the image that sprung to mind when I think of the quintessential European setting is the outdoor cafes of Marienplatz in Munich, complete with cigarette smoke and beer mugs. So it was no surprise when last year, given the choice of spending the next two years between England and Germany, my first choice happened to be Germany. Bill (and some leftover pragmatism) won the battle and we ended up here in London but it doesn't seem much of a victory anymore for numerous reasons but wait, I digress.

What's the point of all this? I went to Berlin dammit, I went to Berlin for the weekend and that's all I want to talk about. But I am falling asleep over the keyboard and there's so much to write about this wonderful, modern, photogenic (I shot 203 pictures in 2 days, that's 100 more than what I shot during our 10-day Morocco trip, so there) city, so I will break this down into several posts over the next week. For now, just to get you into the mood and to prove to you that I am indeed talking of Germany, here's something we found in our hotel bathroom. Tell me, how can one not love this country?

[1] Proved right too. Why would anyone want to be in Paris when they could be in Vienna is beyond me.

[2] Bill and I had this discussion while finishing up our quota of red meat for the year at a brunch place at Potsdamer Platz on Saturday. Interestingly enough, he claimed to share this German fascination. His point is that growing up in India, we usually tend to hear about the British, French, Germans and the Spaniards and the stereotypes associated with each of them. No one wants to be associated with the British for obvious reasons. The French are too pretentious, the Spaniards are too exuberant. So for someone like him who loves Math and logic and railway timetables, and appreciates a bit of efficiency in life, there is really no one else to turn to in Europe. Hence.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Chotu Motu's midsummer adventure

In the land of Absolut. And Ikea. Yes, Falsie, and Bergman. Abi, no, haven't forgotten, and the welfare state. A~, ok ok, and ABBA. Everyone happy now? Can I go on with the post? Thank you!

Midsummer day. The sun will not make an appearance this year, says Radio Sweden. Such luck we bring from the small island. The city has pretty much shut down; everyone has left for the countryside to dance around the maypole[1].

M: Islands! That's where we should go today!

C: Yeah, sounds nice

M: What better way to spend the day than at the archipelago?

C: This same archipelago that you didn't know existed until yesterday afternoon?

M: Oh c'mon, I knew about the Stockholm archipelago. Just didn't know this one has over 20,000 islands.

C: Yeah, where you come from an archipelago has only one island. The archipelago of Sri Lanka! There, right on your backyard.

M: Enough! You think we can take over a little island and call it my own?

C: Yes, but only if you have a cool-looking flag. Do you have one?

M: Shut up. Run along and find out ferry timings now. Go.

So we landed in front of the Grand Hotel[2] early in the morning looking for a ferry to take us into the archipelago. We ruled out the islands of Vaxholm and Grinda as that's where everyone else seemed to be going. Gallno (pronounced Yellna) is where we are going, we decided. According to the guidebook, it is an oddly shaped island in the central archipelago with about 30 inhabitants, thick pine forests, and small bays. Sounded just like the place I wanted to spend my day in.

We found our ferry and got on. Just to prove to us that Swedes aren't really Germans, the boat left 32 seconds later than it was supposed to. We soon left the island of Gamla Stan (which houses the understated Royal Palace in picture below) behind and headed straight east alongside the large (and hip) island of Sodermalm. Trigger-happy Motu randomly shot pictures of Sodermalm and a couple of luxury cruise liners and parked there. Not more than twenty minutes after we had left the Grand Hotel, Stockholm disappeared from view and I turned around to face the open waters.

M: Dude! These are islands!

C: Really? I would never have known

M: I didn't know they were this close

C: Well, I don't think we will even get to open water, that's way after Gallno

M: Okey. These islands are too cool. Look, look, this is like Kirrin Island

C: Yes, Kirrin Island has a Swedish flag like that. On top of light house, right?

M: No, I meant I now see how one can own an island. These are so small that one can afford them

C: I cannot afford one and will never be able to if that's where you are heading. Anyway who wants to live here all the time?

M: The point of owning an island is not to live there all the time. It will be our summer home. Two months a year we can come here. How cool!

C: Summer home? She wants an island now! What am I to do?

M: Hey, why are we stopping here? There is no stop here as per the timetable

C: Its a request stop. See, those people put that mast-like thing up. That's how it is in Gallno too. We have to flag down a ferry when we want to get back

M: What? We could be stranded in the island for days! No ferry would stop for us. Why didn't you tell me this before?

C: Well, you have a choice. You can get down at Vaxholm with all the tourists and be safe and boring. I will go to Gallno by myself

Vaxholm. Hotels, cottages, restaurants, one proper tourist trap it looked like from the boat. Motu decided to risk being stranded and go to Gallno. Ferry gets to Gallno finally. Chotu Motu are the only people to get dropped here. A small, red-and-white waiting room welcomes us to the island of Gallno. A couple of houses by the water, a dirt trail leading to the village which is about a mile from here, and cultivated land on either side. Nope, no idea what they do with all this farmland in the winter.

The walk up to the village proved to be lovely. For a while, the only sound other than our fooststeps was that of the occassional ferry passing by the island. As we neared the village, a few houses with neat hedges, German shepherds, and cute little gardens started making their appearance - we seemed to be transported inside a proper Hans Anderson story. A mother and daughter (in full Red Riding Hood costume) said hello and passed us by. The mother was carrying what looked like a pie of some sort.

M: Friendly people these Swedes eh?

C: Yeah man. Everyone was super friendly when I was in the country last. You reckon we are the only brown people in this island?

M: For sure. Wait, what's that?

C: Some sort of a party. Maybe that's where they were headed. Midsummer party, I am sure.

M: You think they will let us join them?

C: Of course. Chal, we might get some good beer if nothing else

Midsummer party all right. By the only cafe / provision store in the village. The whole village, and a few townies, were singing and dancing around yes, the maypole. We got some strange looks at first but then they got used to us once we showed them that we can down beer nearly as fast as they could. Plus the language wasn't much of a problem, (Bill's useless statistic: 95% of Swedes speak English fluently) so it all went well.

We left after a while as the original idea was to spend this tranquil day walking through pine forests and not to end up in a bositerous party. Only issue was that we didn't know where to go.

C: Well, there's only one way. We will just follow this trail we have been following.

M: But who knows where it leads?

C: Doesn't the Rough Guide say that it leads to next island? Karklo, I think it was.

M: How can it lead into the next island if its really an island? I am not swimming for sure.

C: Hey, look at this.

C: This funky hiker person is walking over water, right?

M: I am not sure we can do that. Maybe a couple of thousand years ago...

C: No idiot. Maybe there's a bridge or something. Lets just follow this sign.

M: But it leads into the forest!

C: Isn't that the whole point of this trip?

So we followed our hiker friend for the next hour to whatever (or wherever) Branholmen was. The forest soon grew thicker shutting out most of the light, but our walking-on-water hiker didn't seem to care. It had rained the day before, and for the first time outside of home, the leaves were the same shade of green! Then, suddenly, for no reason, we started getting more light. The forest started thinning out and we could hear water, and a couple of minutes later, we were at a bay full of yachties.

(Please to note Bergmanesque scene in picture. Woman in picture surely going to commit suicide. MR, you happy now? Isn't this what you wanted?)

M: Okay, so we are in some bay. But weren't we going to Karklo?

C: Yes...but I don't see that island

M: There's some hajjar instructions here but its all in Swedish. Maybe we should ask one of these yacht people

C: No, see, that hiker guy is pointing that way. Lets just follow him

M: I know you are quite taken up with him and all but I am not sure following some guy who walks on water is going to lead us anywhere

C: How do you know if you haven't tried it?

M: Oh my God! You are turning religious on me now!

C: Whatever. I am going to follow this guy. You do what you want.

Another forest but this one wasn't anywhere as thick as the one we were on. Passed by a rock next to which was what seemed like a huge well. More explanations in Swedish here but could not make out anything except that it had to do something with the ice age. We continued on.

M: There! There's the island of Karklo!

C: Yes, we are there!

M: Not quite. There's about 50 metres of water in between

C: Hmm. There must be some way to get there

M: Why don't you ask your hiker friend?

An orange rowing boat. This time, the instructions are clear. You row to Karklo. Both boats cannot be on the same side for obvious reasons, so you row to the other side, tie the boat to your boat, row back to starting point, leave the boat here and row back to destination.

So, will Chotu Motu take up the challenge and row to Karklo? Or will they give up and turn back? Stay tuned for Part 2 of Chotu Motu's midsummer adventure.

[1] A wooden pole which is made to look like an inverted penis, as Emil, Bill's bum pal from the Great City of Lund, kindly explained to me.

[2] Yeah, the Nobel banquet one